If Myhrvold wants to bridge his ideas to reality and not be deemed a mere opportunist, or monsteret, what better route to the public's love than through its stomach?
Myhrvold got serious about food in the early 1990s, working nights at a Seattle restaurant to get enough experience to be accepted to La Varenne culinary school in Burgundy, France, while working days at Microsoft. It was at La Varenne that he learned the art of sous vide, a core technique of much of molecular gastronomy, which involves putting food into a vacuum-sealed container and cooking it at a very low temperature for long periods of time, enabling laser-like precision and producing intense flavor.
His life was changed when he befriended Heston Blumenthal, chef at three-star British restaurant the Fat Duck, who was famous for making creations like bacon-and-egg ice cream and later a seafood dish that required an eater to wear an iPod, with sea sounds for audio accompaniment.
At the time, molecular gastronomy was considered an elite experience and, indeed, was meant to be: Ferran Adrià, the Spaniard behind legendary molecular-gastronomy restaurant elBulli, who is one of Myhrvold's heroes, compared it with rarefied pursuits like jazz and Formula One racing.
"It's a specialized thing that will appeal to a small number of people," says Colman Andrews, Adrià's biographer and a fan of Myhrvold's book. Which is why Myhrvold saw an opportunity not only to create the bible for the molecular-gastronomy world but also to become its pied piper. "I'm going to build what I want, and then I'm going to hope that other people want what I want," he explains. "It's much riskier. A lot of great disasters have been made this way, but also a lot of great successes have been made this way. I recognized that every penny I spent on this might be lost."
Myhrvold published the book himself, overseeing every detail down to the packaging. It was so massive – the ink alone accounts for four pounds of its weight – the binding didn't hold together, and the container had to be redesigned at great expense. When it finally came out, however, the mere fact of the book – its size, cost, and eccentric and media-loving creator – made its own kind of stir. It was hailed by culinary celebrities like David Chang, of New York's Momofuku, and Adrià himself, who donated a recipe to the book, saying it would "change the way we understand the kitchen." And it's hard to deny how detailed and vivid the book is, both as a monument to gawk at and as an elaborate encyclopedia to get lost in.
Myhrvold wants his book to change the way modern American kitchens operate. He's closely monitoring the book's impact, noticing, for instance, that whereas people once referred to this cooking as "molecular gastronomy," they are increasingly referring to it with his term. "Oh, my God, it's switched over almost entirely to 'modernist cuisine.' And that's great, and I take some credit for that. So that's what it's called now!"
Myhrvold says the book will sell 40,000 copies in its first year. At $500 a copy, he points out, "that's like selling 20 million of a $1 retail book."
But whether people are using the book as something other than decor remains an open question. Last year, 'New Yorker' food critic John Lanchester praised Myhrvold's book but said its ultimate effect "will, if anything, widen the gap between ordinary and professional cooking. The truth is that this stuff is for the pros."
When I recite this passage to Myhrvold, he gets animated. "We're totally equalizing things," he argues. "Any amateur can learn something at the same time as Ferran Adrià does. That's an equalizing factor. I would argue that it's the awww-pposite of that." But what about the barriers to entry? Not everyone can lay down $625 (the actual price) for a cookbook, let alone $10,000 for a Sorvall RC-5C Plus Superspeed Centrifuge. At this, he sighs, clearly annoyed. "So why is $500 expensive?" he asks. "If it was a $500 car, it would be a cheap car. If it was $500 of textbooks to go through a college course. Oh, my God! It's a trivial fraction of the overall costs.
"We wanted to make something that was different, that had a level of quality and level of detail that was unlike anything else," he says. "And, yeah, it costs something! But really good parmesan cheese costs more than the supermarket crap! You can decry it as elitist, or you can swallow hard, buy it, and grate it over something." Myhrvold argues that even if only middle- and high-end chefs adopt modernist techniques, that will create a kind of culinary trickle-down economy, with his ideas finding their way from his lavishly funded kitchen to your not-so-lavishly funded kitchen, eventually enriching everyone. He expects we'll see evidence of it in the years to come.
"Ten years from now, you could stop by a roadhouse and say, 'That dish! That dish right there!' " he exclaims.
It's not yet clear what "that dish" will be. But even if the chef at the local roadhouse never uses a centrifuge, and even if 'Modernist Cuisine' doesn't travel beyond pro kitchens, all is not lost. Myhrvold, after all, has a diversified portfolio. There's the mosquito laser and the tens of thousands of patents in his company's portfolio, a kind of wide net for catching money from Google or Foursquare or Twitter or dozens of young companies trying to foment innovation in the digital age. Or maybe – who knows? – there's something nobody has ever thought of before, which will change the world forever and have Nathan Myhrvold's stamp on it.
Whatever the case, for one evening in Seattle, Myhrvold has an audience oohing and aahing at his wacky creations. A fake quail egg made of passion fruit. A zebra-striped omelet. Creamed spinach with chlorophyll butter. Six hours of eating in all, a kind of endless parade of novelty and exotica. Wine flows, cheeks go ruddy, and laughter, for a while, overtakes the hum of machines in the background. Everyone is jovial, and perhaps no one more so than Myhrvold. A bit ruddy himself, he bounces from table to table, answering any questions posed by the CEO of Viking stoves or Pierre Hermé, the famed French pastry chef, explaining the vacuum-infused vegetables or the cocoa seaweed or the consommé that requires the meat to be juiced using "a hydraulic press that will squeeze with 120 tons – and that gets it real flat!"
"He just wants to have fun," whispers the drunken wife of a top food critic.
And it's true, cooking seems like a kind of therapy for Myhrvold, a place where he can aim his supreme ambition and laserlike attention toward humans in a way that won't make them have to hire lawyers. And maybe – who knows? – they may even love him for it. "If Pierre hates the meal, is it the end of my career?" muses Myhrvold. "No. But we're anxious to please them because it's what you do when you cook."
He says it like it wasn't always obvious.
Sometime after midnight, as the mammoth meal winds down, he examines a tray of last desserts just then coming off the assembly line. "Wanna bite?" he asks, as I walk by. It looks vaguely like banana – and, in fact, it is. Centrifuged. "Isn't it fucking excellent?"